This is the second post in a series on the "why" of doing youth ministry (and ministry in general) through the lens of social entrepreneurship. These posts spawned out of a conversation about the degree to which money/economics played a role in founding the ventures I run at my local church. They did play a role and I have posted on those functions elsewhere, but there were many reasons why we headed in this new direction. I have felt that it might be important to lay those out.
One of the big problems in American Youth Ministry is that at its core it has often been more about security and control rather than risk and trust. The very nature of the American youth ministry project of the last 60 years or so is that it was primarily begun in order to maintain the faith of teenagers in an age of eroding cultural Christianity. At other phases of its life American youth ministry helped keep kids busy and safe from sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It also has been designed to give them solid middle class values that direct them on the road to college and "success". We don't need to go on at length as to why this kind of ministry is rather stunted. Just look up Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism and you can fill in the blanks. The problems are legion.
The main issue is that what our youth ministries have effectively done, because of this aversion to risk and trust, is to create these kind of artificial environments in which a teenager in an insular church world is meant to be kept safe from an outer world that has been painted in the most rudimentary theological brush strokes as unsafe. What this has produced are these ministries that effectively isolate our teenagers from the real life of faith that they need cultivated in order to have a vibrant trust in the living God.
The truth of the matter is that the entire world has a bit of unsafeness to it. It is often little different within the church than without. You only need to strip back the thinnest of veneers to discover that the same evil forces that tarnish creation beyond our walls (violence, racism, sexism, corruption, injustice, etc.) are sometimes tidily sanitized and hidden in our pews. But rather than preparing our students to see these realities and operate as Kingdom people within them (sheep amongst wolves, sly as foxes and innocent as doves) we have created spaces (youth groups, retreats, youth centers, etc.) that shield them from these realities. I have come to think of most of our youth ministries as something akin to placing ships in a bottle.
Ships are quite clearly made to sail the ocean. Every bit of them is designed for active and penetrating waters that are often deeply dark and scary. Having grown up very near the ocean and been on a number of boats over the years I can tell you that sailing is beautiful and invigorating, but deeply scary at times. You don't spend all the labor of building a ship with wood, rope, tar, and sails to place it in an environment in which it will never be used. You design it precisely for the open ocean because that is where it was meant to sail. And furthermore, you know that is exactly where it will end up. We cannot bottle and cork our teenagers. Eventually they will need to go out on the open ocean.
Our teens need to learn not to wall themselves off from the world in some sort of mid 20th century suburban monastery. But rather we need to help them wade into the suffering, pain, and nefariousness of our world with open eyes and hearts. Part of my thinking in starting a social entrepreneurship in youth ministry was that we had to prepare the students in our ministries to maintain their God given humanity while sailing the difficult oceans of our world. The problem that eventually crops up is that over time if you design ships for the open ocean and then place them in a bottle, you will eventually start making changes to the design in order to accomodate the bottle rather than the seas. The ships will eventually be nothing more than a model that has BECOME designed for the bottles in which you place them. And this is exactly what we have done over the years in many of our churches.
What social entrepreneurship does is that it engages real world projects that function in real time. Because social entrepreneurship engages the market place it has to work, at least in part, within that environment. It has to deal with failure, risk, money, integrity, all sorts of people, and a thousand other things that reveal the goodness and power of the gospel story. The gospel is only powerful when you can see how diametrically opposed it is to so many real world values and calculations. This requires a real time juxtapositioning. Our students must be allowed to place the gospel values next to the values of this worlds various kingdom narratives. They must do so in the marketplace and not in a kind of cloistered theological laboratory. I call this "Hull on Water" youth ministry. Hull on water is the only way to reveal the saltieness of the gospel to any of us. Social Entrepreneurship requires students that engage entrepreneurial ventures to think about their faith in real life situations. A student working at a charitable food cart for instance has to learn to deal graciously with customers who may not share the overall vision for what is taking place there. They will have to recognize that while their project might be virtuous, that does not exempt it from the demands of a customer who wants the best food in the world for as little money as possible because all they know are the selfish mantras of a consumeristic culture. A group of students seeking grant funding for a missional venture will need to have explored the actual problems facing the community they are seeking to help thoroughly enough to merit the grant they are seeking. Such a project would teach them all sorts of gospel truth about how to do social justice in a way that honors the recipient of the good they seek to do. It would teach them that in order to do good they will have to labor to find the best solutions for the most pressing problems. This world of sharks and waves won't fund anything else. And it shouldn't. They might get to experience the goodness of rejection, a honing process that is a necessary function of this side of the Kingdom. These sorts of endeavors are a much better alternative for instance than the church that simply pays for a bunch of backpacks for their local school and then simply says to their teenagers, "Here go hand these out 'over there'." Social entrepreneurship seeks to enable students to make real world impact in an environment that has to keep pace with real world sailing. Sails and rigging must constantly be adjusted rather than being sacrilized. What does not help the ship sail needs to be considered flotsam or jetsam. Students engaged in missional ventures and social entrepreneurial ventures will need to trust and risk as they learn new skills, come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to problem solve without compromising their integrity as a child of God. In short social entrepreneurship is ministry in the real world. It prepares them for just the sorts of difficult moral tensions that they will have to face when they leave our churches in a few short years.
If you build ministries that exist in real time and in the real world, chances are they will help students function in the real world. Social Entrepreneurship forces us to design ships that are meant to sail dangerous waters because that is all they will ever do. There is no safe harbor. You cannot dry-dock a teenager. At least not for very long. Despite the best efforts of helicopter parents and the modern world that seems to perpetually extend our collective adolescence. They are going to have to sail. Our hope is that students that are a part of our youth ministries might enter into the real world knowing exactly how to maintain their humanity and their Christian faith in a world that is often dehumanizing.
So why did I start doing youth ministry through the lens of social/missional entrepreneurship? Because I was tired of building teenage spiritual ships that were only designed to sail within the confines of a youth room. I felt like I was running the ecclessial version of the Truman Show while wearing a ministerial collar. Too much safety. Too much control. Let's build ministries that help students live the gospel truth on the open ocean. It's scary as hell, but the spray on your face is pretty invigorating.